“In the main bazaar of Pahar Ganj, a popular area amongst backpackers who visit Delhi, there is a pakora stand that’s been there since the beginning of time. A fat man used to run it, at the corner of the vegetable market, selling pakoras for ten rupees a plate. He sat—and is probably still sitting—cross-egged on a high platform over the black oil, and all he did through the day was to prepare the highly flavoured snack.”
That would be a common enough image from the bazaars and streets of India. Every city, possibly every locality in India has its own favoured snack-maker — frying bhajiyyas or pakoras or vadas or samosa or puris, choose what you will, a man you may have given very little thought to if you are an Indian immune to the many colours, aromas and charms of the country that invariably draw the Western eye to it. Sephi Bergerson goes on to explain that the pakoras were the “first food I ever ate in India” after deciding to explore the “real” country as distinct from the antiseptic environs of its hotels. “After the first tongue burn and runny nose, I was hooked,” he adds, thus establishing his love for the street food of India, his willingness to try all the new flavours and therefore his credentials in attempting a pictorial exploration of these very foods—their preparation and consumption.
It’s a great concept to begin with. For a photographer, there is no beating the vibrancy of the street scene in India. And Bergerson fine tunes this focus to give us something new from all the other Indophile accounts in a similar vein. As a commercial photographer in Israel, he says in the introduction to this coffee-tabler, he felt that he needed a breath of freshness in his work. For that he turned to India, a country that he had visited earlier and fallen in love with possibly, not the least for its fritters! The move facilitated this project that began as a one-off ‘India story” for a Tel Aviv food magazine but took on a larger dimension over a period of time as Bergerson travelled and discovered many more flavours and textures of street food in different Indian cities.
The images themselves are hugely appetizing as Bergerson uses these to explore colours and textures in a way that food photography in India rarely does. One of my favourites is the one of bread pakoras from Amritsar. The shot that Bergerson takes involves cut triangles so that the yellow of the besan and (stuffed) potatoes invitingly alternates with the white of the bread and paneer taking this humble and often oily preparation to a different aesthetic level altogether.
Indian food can be a tough proposition for any photographer: It can easily be reduced to a brown mess on a film, without any real texture. True, Bergerson here does not face the challenge of shooting a dal or a mashed subzi—snacks are easier—but he does attempts a runny aloo ki subzi on a patal in Varanasi and the result is delicious.
There are some quintessentially India ‘kitsch” pictures—juice stalls or paan ones, often with bright film posters in the backdrop, lend themselves to such portrayals. And there are some typical beach scenes as well (hawkers on the Chowpatty beach) not to mention Ramadan scenes that every newspaper regularly publishes around Id so as to make the whirls of long, sweet fried vermicelli or the huge paranthas somewhat of a cliche. But what I like in many of the pictures is the way in which the body language of the people comes through. Food is not the only protagonist here. You can get glimpses of that moment—a tired hawker, a content one, a curious onlooker, someone happily posing at the novelty of perhaps being clicked by a “foreigner”, and also those who seem to be masters of all they survey despite the poverty of their surroundings.
Recipes for various street foods accompany the pictures and there’s an attempt to authenticate the experience by way of how each dish is spelt—“aamlete” for omlette and so forth. But that’s the gimmicky bit about the book. Where did the recipes come from? Were they really sourced from the streets? Or are they sanitized versions that all of us in any case know and make at home? If you are an Indian, you may not want to pick up this book for its recipe of aloo tikki and such. If you are not, it would make sense.
Book: Street Food of India
Author: Sephi Bergerson
Publisher: Roli Books
Price: Rs 695